Advertisers have long exploited the advantages of using sex to sell products (e.g. Old Spice). However, there are also negative connotations that can become associated with a brand when sex is perceived to be used gratuitously or in a sleazy fashion. The greatest asset of “Science” as a brand is its worthiness: a reputation for being unbiased, accurate and trustworthy. An association of sex with science would, therefore, appear to risk devaluing science even if the use of sex is effective in attracting the public to science. Here I outline a specific case study involving George Murray Levick and the effect of sex in the dissemination of his science about the behaviour of penguins. As a member of Captain Robert Scott’s last expedition, Levick studied Adelie penguins in the austral summer of 1911-12 at Cape Adare, Antarctica, and published the first-ever book on penguins exactly a century ago in 1914. However, he was prevented by the British Museum of Natural History from publishing his observations on the sexual behavior of the penguins: instead he produced 100 copies of a manuscript of the sexual peccadillos of the penguins that was distributed internally at the museum and promptly discarded or forgotten. In 2012, a surviving copy of that manuscript was rediscovered. It outlined instances of infidelities, rape and homosexual behaviour in the penguins. The subsequent publicity generated a lot of interest, to the point where it completely dominated online searches for Levick and penguins. I demonstrate how I was able to use this interest in the sexual behavior of the penguins to tell a broader story about aspects of science involving the penguins. Sex is successfully used to enhance engagement with science, while the integrity of the science is preserved by putting the salacious aspects of the penguins’ behaviour into the context of scientific principles.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Using sex to sell science

Lloyd Davis   Centre for Science Communication/University of Otago, New Zealand

Advertisers have long exploited the advantages of using sex to sell products (e.g. Old Spice). However, there are also negative connotations that can become associated with a brand when sex is perceived to be used gratuitously or in a sleazy fashion. The greatest asset of “Science” as a brand is its worthiness: a reputation for being unbiased, accurate and trustworthy. An association of sex with science would, therefore, appear to risk devaluing science even if the use of sex is effective in attracting the public to science. Here I outline a specific case study involving George Murray Levick and the effect of sex in the dissemination of his science about the behaviour of penguins. As a member of Captain Robert Scott’s last expedition, Levick studied Adelie penguins in the austral summer of 1911-12 at Cape Adare, Antarctica, and published the first-ever book on penguins exactly a century ago in 1914. However, he was prevented by the British Museum of Natural History from publishing his observations on the sexual behavior of the penguins: instead he produced 100 copies of a manuscript of the sexual peccadillos of the penguins that was distributed internally at the museum and promptly discarded or forgotten. In 2012, a surviving copy of that manuscript was rediscovered. It outlined instances of infidelities, rape and homosexual behaviour in the penguins. The subsequent publicity generated a lot of interest, to the point where it completely dominated online searches for Levick and penguins. I demonstrate how I was able to use this interest in the sexual behavior of the penguins to tell a broader story about aspects of science involving the penguins. Sex is successfully used to enhance engagement with science, while the integrity of the science is preserved by putting the salacious aspects of the penguins’ behaviour into the context of scientific principles.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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